We find ourselves today, on the second of three days, when we are invited to pray specifically for the ministry of the church, and those engaged in it. So, on one day we pray for those to be ordained; on the second, for the choice of suitable persons for the ministry; and on the third, for all Christians in their vocations. Historically these are called Ember Days, and they happen four times a year: in Advent, Lent, just after Trinity Sunday, and in the middle of September.
While today these Ember Days are associated with prayer for the ministry of the church, it was not always so. Liturgical scholars believe their placement in the four quarters or cycles of the year, or quatuor tempora, in Latin, or ymbren ryne in Anglo-Saxon, which is where our word ember comes from, is no accident. It is thought that originally these days were associated with the agricultural cycle of the year: spring, summer, fall, and winter. If that is the case, the origin of Ember Days predates the history of the church, and prayers for ministry, and reaches back to our pre-Christian, agricultural forebears.
Second Sunday in Season of Creation
Today we continue with the second in a five-part preaching series for the church’s Season of Creation. The theme this week is “Learn.” As many of you will know I spent six-weeks this summer learning from and collaborating with Navajo Episcopalians. I learned so much, and I’d like to begin by sharing one of my experiences.
I was driving a rental pickup truck along the winding, narrow highway that snakes its way through Monument Valley, Arizona, but I returned the gaze of the woman in my passenger seat at every moment I could. It was urgent that I do so, because her eyes shone with the sorrow and righteous anger of generations. She gestured all around us at the sunbeaten landscape of rock and endless horizon that she called home: Dinétah, the Navajo Nation. Though nothing appeared unusual to the naked eye, she told me how this iconic region contains 63 abandoned uranium mines. This is only a fraction of the total number in Navajoland, over 500. Beginning in the 1950’s private, white-owned companies hired primarily Navajo workers to extract this radioactive element for nuclear weapons. Increasing rates of cancer afflicted Navajo people at alarming speed throughout the sixties. Though studied and documented, nothing was done to protect Navajo people. In spite of the founding and intervention of the EPA in 1971, to this day large amounts of radioactive waste remain – in the earth, the air, and in vital aquifers. As she listed the lives of family and friends cut short or diminished by radiated lungs and failed kidneys, my companion’s tears spilled over and her voice trembled as she asked, “Why do they do this to us?”
Season of Creation
This morning we begin a 5-part Sunday morning sermon series on the Season of Creation. This “Creation” focus for our preaching and prayers is going on with other Christians throughout the world, across the denominational spectrum. In the upcoming four Sundays, the preachers here at the monastery will focus on themes related to “Creation”: to Learn, to Act, to Advocate, to Bless, and, beginning this morning, to Pray.
Emery House, our rural monastery in West Newbury, Massachusetts, is bordered by the Merrimack River, and so a story about the Merrimack, told by Henry David Thoreau, is particularly endearing. In the first two weeks of September 1839, Thoreau set off on a homemade wooden boat with his older brother, John, to explore the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.[i] Later, while living in his sparse cabin at Walden Pond, Henry David Thoreau wrote about this river experience, his first book. The writing project took him 10 years, not because of the length of the book, but because of the depth of his grief. After the river trek, Henry’s beloved brother, John, had cut himself while shaving and contracted tetanus, dying in agony the following week. John was 28; Henry, 25. In his grief, Henry was destroyed… almost.
Henry David Thoreau’s healing, his resuscitation, came at Walden Pond as he intently watched the goings on of flowers and trees, of birds and animals. Observing the natural wonders, he slowly realized that death is not the end of life but rather an intrinsic part of life. He learned from observation that the very process of decay, diminishment, and death is a life process. It is the way that God has created all of the earth, from the life of the tiniest bird and flower to humankind. Thoreau wrote in his Journal, “Do not the flowers die every autumn? …Yet death is beautiful when seen to be a law, and not an accident. [Death] is as common as life. Every blade in the field, every leaf in the forest, lays down its life in its season as beautifully as it was taken up.”[ii]
Two realizations had happened in Thoreau: in his mind and in his heart. In his mind, he came to embrace a “disindividualized” view of life. Thoreau writes, “The individual may die, but the materials that make up the individual do not. They are subsumed into new forms and so live on,” true for every living thing that has ever been created.[iii] And emotionally, Thoreau’s grief in his brother’s death never went away; however his grief came to be companioned by gratitude and wonder. Thoreau’s love for his brother, John, his joy in the life together they had shared, and his many memories had not died. They actually took new form and lived on. Thoreau realized that death is not the end of life but, rather an essential part of life, by God’s design, and this is something we share with everything and with everyone and for all time. Thoreau said that, in a certain sense, there is no death; everything is part and parcel of life. Thoreau’s epiphany brought to my mind what we pray at a funeral, that at death, the life of this departed one “is changed, not ended.”[iv]
So we look to the whole of creation as if it were an icon, a window through which to know God on God’s terms:
- the window of creation opening our eyes to the majestic beauty of God;
- the window of creation opening our eyes to the panoply of the diversity which God creates, multiplies, shares, and invites; in the beginning, God’s creation teems with beauty and diversity, and God said, “it is good”;[v]
- the window of creation – what is the most massive and mighty, and what is the most tiny and delicate – with a lifespan the prepares and provides for what is next. This is why we call it “the created order.” We read in the Book of Ecclesiastes: “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die…”[vi]
We have an invitation and an inspiration for our prayer as we learn from God’s creation that surrounds us and fills us.
- Be still enough, focused enough, close enough to notice, expectant enough to notice the majesty and terminality of creation. You might ask, “Notice what?” To which I would only smile.
- The autumn season is upon us. The colors and fragrances of plants, and flowers, and trees are changing, preparing the way for the next season. Outside in front of the monastery, the sycamores, these elephantine trees soaring into the sky, have decided this is a year to divest their bark, their old bark. Behold, a fresh skin of bark is awaiting. Very soon these great soaring trees will also surrender their leaves… which leave space for new life to emerge in the spring. In our Rule of Life, we write how the autumn of life prepares the way: “Hardships, renunciations, losses, bereavements, frustrations and risks are all ways in which death is at work in advance preparing us for the self-surrender of bodily death.”[vii] Is death an end in itself? Not at all. Death is part of life; death is the portal to the new life that Jesus promises us.[viii]
- See how the creation that surrounds us does not clutch at its life, but rather lives and gives its life. Letting go is an important life practice. I love an ancient word in the church’s vocabulary: oblation, from the Latin meaning an offering, a gift. We live the gift of our lives as an oblation, offering our lives back to God the custody God has temporarily entrusted to us.
We notice, we acquiesce, we participate most fully in life when we live with the terms by which God has created all of life, which is terminal. All of creation is a teacher for our prayer.
We also have an invitation to pray for the creation that surrounds us. So much of creation does not advocate well for itself when faced with human intrusion. One word captures how I, personally, pray for plants and animals, for birds and fish, mountains and meadows. My own prayer word is “channeling.” I pray that I can channel light; I pray that I can channel fresh water; I pray that I can channel the needed nourishment; I pray that I can channel a fresh breeze. I sometimes pray I can channel CO2 to some poor plant. I am placing myself with one hand pointing to the heavens, and the other hand channeling some life I sense this creature, this created thing, needs. I pray, co-operating with the Creator. I pray I can be a conduit of God’s life to this creature in need. If you were to ask me, “So does your channeling prayer do any good?” I would say, “Absolutely!” “Yes, I am quite sure.”
So this is free-form prayer, what captures my heart’s attention in the moment. And yet there are some specific creatures – by creatures I mean plants and animals, trees and meadows, mountains and waterways – some specific creatures that have a particular, ongoing claim on my heart’s attention. Maybe you, also? To what in creation are you drawn to give attention in your prayer? How do you pray to be a channel of God’s light, and life, and love to this creature? How are you drawn to pray? You might not be ready to publish, but I imagine you do have some prayer practice for creation. What is it?
For almost 20 years I have been fascinated with the work of Johannes Fritz, an Austrian biologist, who has devoted his life to saving an endangered bird species, the northern bald ibis. The ibis is a goose-sized black bird with a bald head and an enormous beak. Perhaps you’ve read about Dr. Fritz who feeds and cuddles the baby ibises and then, using his ultralight aircraft, he leads them in flight to a new safer winter migration path that bypasses the Alps. Global warming figures into the urgency of his work. Dr. Fritz has rewilded more about 300 of these ibises. It’s his life’s work. I mention this particular legacy as an amazing example of passion and advocacy. His passion is what I am talking about when I speak of praying for whatever in creation has captured your heart’s attention. Pray as an intermediary. Be like a third point in a triangle, whose two other points are God and the creature that has caught your heart’s attention. Pray your intercession, and then channel the power or provision for what God gives you for this fellow creature. Pray. Do pray.
In our lesson from the Letter to the Romans, we hear Saint Paul say, “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God…”[ix] Creation is waiting for us to do our own part in the company of fellow creatures.
“i thank You God for most this amazing day, the words of E. E. Cummings:
“i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes….”[x]
[i] Henry David Thoreau’s first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, published in 1849.
[ii] From October 1837 to November 1861, Thoreau kept a handwritten Journal. Thoreau’s Walden was first published in 1854.
[iii] Three Roads Back; How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded to the Greatest Losses of Their Lives, by Robert D. Richardson (Princeton Univ. Press, 2023), pp. 53-54.
[iv] The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 382.
[v] Genesis 1 – 2:3.
[vi] Ecclesiastes 3:1-2.
[vii] Quoted from SSJE’s The Rule of Life (Cowley, 1997), chapter 48: “Holy Death.”
[viii] John 14:3-10.
[ix] Romans 8:19.
[x] E. E. Cummings (1894-1962):
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)
how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no
of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginably You?
(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)
Are you ready?
The wise bridesmaids in Jesus’ parable are ready when the bridegroom comes. They have foresight and plan appropriately, and so can follow the bridegroom into the banquet hall. They are ready.
Or were they? Or, rather, is this readiness?
In his retreat address on “Readiness,” our founder, Fr. Benson, sounds a seemingly odd note. Readiness is doing your best under the circumstances that face you—which may mean that you fail. It may mean you fail most of the time. But, Fr. Benson continues, “it may be that [your] failure is the way in which most is to be done. It may be that [you] will effect more than another person who might have brought some natural gift to the work and have succeeded in it.”
Readiness, then, is not the preparation and training for success, but rather the presentness of our attention and the immediacy of our response to God’s call. This kind of readiness would have seen wisdom not in bringing extra lamp oil, but in waiting on the bridegroom—waiting and trusting that what he sought was not a lit lamp but a listening heart.